Mr George Thomas, the popular Speaker of the House of Commons talks to Jonathan Petre
Some time during the last Parliament Liverpudlian left-winger Eddie Loyden was addressing the House in thick "Scouse" when he was interrupted by a Scottish Nationalist MP.
"On a point o' order, Mr Speaker, I cannoe understand a wirrd he's saying," Mrs Winifred Ewing complained in her own brothy Scots accent.
She couldn't have insulted Mr Loyden more. The House was plunged into uproar: Mr Loyden's Tribunite friends hurled insults at Mrs Ewing; Mrs Ewing's friends returned them with vigour.
Mr George Thomas rose to his feet, wagging his full bottomed wig in disapproval. "Order, order!" he called. The House fell silent. "There are many accents in this House," he said in his singsong Welsh lilt. "Indeed, I wish I had one myself."
George Thomas likes to tell this story as an example of the power of humour to defuse the most explosive situation. In fact, like any true Welsh Methodist, he would dearly love to hand round the hymn book to intemperate members of Parliament.
"You cannot laugh and be nasty," he says. "You cannot sing hymns and be nasty, not at the same time. You can do one after the other maybe — but not together."
Mr Thomas has been calling the MPs to order — much as Barbara Woodhouse tames her dogs and horses — for the last eight ryears as Speaker, and for another two and a half as Deputy Speaker before that.
Last week he celebrated his 73rd birthday, though he is as physically and mentally active as ever.
"The sands of time are running out," he told me. "All I know is that I shall not be fighting at the next election. That I have told the House, and I have said that I would carry on as long as I can in the life of the Parliament."
A miner's son from the Rhondda valley, George Thomas grew up in an environment of extreme poverty. massive unemployment — more than 80 per cent of the male population — and the Methodist Church. Combined, these elements produced a powerful spirit of community, with the chapel at the centre.
"I think we are all in part a of our environment and part uniquely ourselves. I often think that if His Holiness the Pope had been born in my home he would have been a Methodist, and if I had been born in his I
would have been a Catholic but I'm not saying I would have been Pope!"
Not surprisingly, the prevailing political climate in the area was often stormy. "I sometimes say I was 21 before I saw a Conservative," he said, laughing. "I tease them here about that. I was interested to find they looked like everybody else."
But although Parliamentary democracy remains.the best way to change social and material conditions — he recalled his many battles in the past — religion is at the heart of a nation's well-being.
"I think that if a country loses its religious faith it loses its way, it loses its character, and in a void something else will soon come in.
"With every group thinking that if they have got muscle they have got a right to use it," he continued, "to look after their own interests and never mind a `tuppenny-toss' about the effect on the life of other people.
"That's not the parliamentary democracy that was the dream when I was young and we were struggling for a brave new world."
But how does Mr Thomas, used to the simplicity of the Methodist chapel — "we have four walls and we sing our hearts out" •— react to grand trappings of office'?
"The ceremony gives an intangible, but nevertheleSs real, dignity to our proceedings. But," he added with his Celtic charm, "I wouldn't walk down the main
street of my town of Tonypandy in the Rhondda dressed in my Speaker's outfit, not if you paid me a million pounds."
Christian Churches, he said, have an obligation to encourage their sons and daughters to become more involved in public and political life. But however strong the political will, faith is man's most powerful instinct.
"All history shows that the human spirit has a yearning for freedom and the religious instinct cannot be crushed. Not from the times when they sent people to the lions in the Colosseum in Rome.
"I'm just glad," he said, "that it was the Romans, not the British."
The Polish people have shown, again and again. that "no govern ment or military machine is stronger than Almighty God, and at the end of the day righteousness triumphs over evil."
In Britain, he sees the Churches coming together. "We used only to look at the Catholic Church and they only looked at ours. They were quite satisfied they had the ultimate truth — and so were we. Now we live in a world in which we all know we have to love the same Lord."
"In Ireland we have seen all the leaders, Catholic and Protestant together, in a great procession of unity. There may have been one missing," he added, with mock caution, "but no names, no pack-drill!"
Mr Thomas is looking forward to meeting the Pope when he visits this country in the summer. "I believe that Protestant and Catholic Churches alike should feel the Holy Spirit moving among them as a result of this visit and the preparation for his visit."
"There is no doubt at all in my mind that Pope John Paul II is one of this generations giants. For one thing, he is coming to Cardiff, which is a mark of great wisdom on his part."
Mr Thomas won the seat of Cardiff Central in 1945. Now he is approaching retirement; but it is hard to see him settling down. He can take great heart from a former Pope.
"And Pope John XXIII what a man! Over 80, and still used mightily by God. My word, a great encouragement for all of us in our 70s!"